Golden Places
The History of Alaska-Yukon Mining
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Chronology: Yukon-Charley

1898Klondike stampede overflow to Fourth of July Creek.
1899-1904Stampedes to Nome and Fairbanks draw miners away from upper Yukon.
1906Mining rivers on several creeks.
1930Nation has two residents.
1934Gold price rises to $35 an ounce.
1935A.D. McRae and Ernest Patty commence dredging on Coal and Woodchopper creeks.
1942-1945War years shutdown, although Woodchopper dredge worked in 1943 and Coal Creek in 1945.
1946Coal and Woodchopper creek dredging resumes as before the war.
1952Coal Creek dredge did not operate.
1954White Pass and Yukon Railway ends river steamboat service.
1956Taylor Highway constructed to Eagle.
1957Company shuts down Coal Creek dredge.
1961Ted C. Matthews leased Gold Placers, Inc. claims on Coal and Woodchopper creeks.
1964Woodchopper Creek dredge is shut down.
1971Joe Vogler buys Woodchopper claims.
1972Price of gold deregulated.
1972-1976Ernest Wolff, et al., work Coal Creek.
1976-1977Au. Placers, Inc., works Coal Creek.
1977-1985Lowerson, Ltd., works Coal Creek.
1985-1986Coal Creek Properties works Coal Creek; donates properties to NPS in 1986.

Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve encompasses 2.52 million acres of virtual wilderness and major portions of the mighty Yukon River and a southern tributary, the Charley. When it crosses the Canadian border, the Yukon River has completed a third of its 1,875-mile traverse to the Bering Sea from its headwaters in the Yukon Territory. Between Eagle and Circle the river courses sinuously but generally northwesterly. From Eagle the river flows through what is called the Upper Rampart, a 155-mile section that skirts the Ogilvie Mountains, descending gradually at a speed of 6 to 8 miles an hour. As the waters flow farther into Alaska, small islands increasingly dot the channel, and streams draining the Ogilvie Mountains—the Tatonkuk, Kaondik, and Nation—join the great river from the northeast. The Seventymile and Charley rivers, which head in the Yukon-Tanana Upland, join from the west and south. The additional waters of these tributaries broaden the Yukon from the half-mile width at the border to 2 miles at Circle.

The Yukon River section from the Canadian border to near Circle that is within the preserve was a much-traveled route during pre-Klondike and Klondike gold eras as well as into more recent times. Major activity areas, like the important mining towns of Eagle and Circle, and the most productive placer regions of Birch Creek and Fortymile River, lie outside present preserve boundaries. This portion of the Yukon River ties into earlier interior mining history, but few mining sites are within the preserve. Though production from Yukon-Charley was meager, some mining has been carried out continuously since 1898. Though mining has been limited to a few creeks, notably Fourth of July, Coal, Woodchopper, Sam, and Washington, operations on them exhibit some singularities, particularly in the development of dredging from 1935. Precise production figures are vague because the region's output was always included with other districts: Woodchopper and Coal Creek were reported by the USGS with the Birch Creek district, and Fourth of July Creek was reported within the Eagle District.

Fourth of July Creek

Thanks to the letters of Alfred McMichael, a '98 stampeder, we have some vivid impressions of early mining on Fourth of July Creek. McMichael was one of many stampeders who reached Dawson after all of the ground had long since been claimed by other prospectors. He was not rich enough to buy a claim, so either he returned home in defeat or looked elsewhere for gold prospects. With a couple of partners he determined to look around. He wrote to his wife from Dawson: "We have come many thousands of miles, and spent over four months getting here. It certainly would be extraordinary good luck if we fell into a good claim so soon. Also, we are prepared to face failure for this country has been awfully boomed and vastly lied about." [1]

On June 25 the McMichael party left Dawson in a small boat and rowed 60 miles up the Fortymile. That legendary river also was blanketed with mining claims, so the prospectors returned to the Yukon and headed downriver for Circle. By July 10 they reached a likely looking southern tributary about 40 miles from the Canadian border. With stout resolve, despite the dismal rain, they packed over an old Indian trail. Whenever they left the trail to prospect, they encountered the difficult terrain characteristic of much of the interior:

We tramped through great patches of deep moss, as hard to walk over as deep snow, and the tangled undergrowth of trees along the bank made the going very difficult. But the worst of all were the great bogs of a kind of bunch grass which grows like a cabbage, large at the tip and small at the roots . . . six inches to a foot and a half high. It is almost impossible to step between them and it takes a gymnast to step from one to the other without falling . . . below the grass is soft muck and often water. [2]

Slogging over the tussocks was miserable, as were the plagues of mosquitoes. At night the men wore nets for protection, yet the roar of insects kept them awake. After three days they had traveled 16 miles, discovered color, found other miners at work, and staked a claim. Miners from Circle had already staked a number of claims on the "Glorious Fourth," hence the stream's name. But for local regulations made by the discoverers at their first miners meeting, McMichael would not have been able to claim his tract, which he called the 10 Below Discovery. The original miners on the ground, fed up with claim abuses elsewhere, had decreed that only one claim could be taken by an individual, and power of attorney claims were prohibited. As a result, less land had been claimed then elsewhere.

The Fourth of July Creek miners founded two camps on the Yukon, Ivy and Nation. Ivy did not last but Nation, located opposite the mouth of Nation River not far from Fourth of July Creek, developed a little. As with claim restrictions, a miners meeting laid down the rules for the new town. Each person could stake one 50-by-100-foot lot by paying a $2.50 recording fee, clearing one half of the street, and making a few improvements.

Fourth of July Creek, which heads only 12 miles from the Yukon, runs through a valley 200 to 400 feet wide 2,000 feet below surrounding ridges. With a small drainage area and low precipitation, the volume of water available is generally insufficient for mining. Much of the rock is limestone and bedrock averages nine feet.

Most miners left Fourth of July Creek for the winter, and McMichael was no exception. No one thought they had much to protect. Some seven or eight cabins were built the first season, and a couple more were added later. At its peak, Nation boasted only a dozen cabins, a small store, and a roadhouse. Its decline from 1899 was never arrested, although a few miners and trappers continued to use the cabins.

Over the years, the creek yielded only minor amounts of gold. That men persisted to mine the area for half a century speaks volumes about the nature of mining and the men who persevered. Through 1905 the stream produced $30,000. In 1906 a dozen miners made $6,000 through drift and open-cut mining. In 1911 miners brought advanced mining technology into the area. An 86-horsepower Bagley steam scraper finally was put into service, after being removed from the Yukon barge and taking 20 days to plow through 10 miles of brush under its own power.

Even with such limited success, willing investors came forward sometime after 1916 to support a hydraulic operation. Production went on sporadically through the 1930s. In 1929 the July Creek Mining Co. on Fourth of July Creek was the largest of some 10 camps within the district but, in all, only 25 men labored in the district. The July Creek Placer Co. was organized in 1919 by James M. Taylor of Nation with backing from B.D. Vanderveer and Paul Rhodius of Sedro-Wooley, Washington. The company's capitalization was at $100,000, most of which represented the claims themselves. It was a typical small mining operation but more successful than most others. Taylor left after a year and was replaced as resident manager by A.D. Reynolds. Reynolds lasted two years before giving way to George Matlock. [3]

Shifts in management and ownership were common in mining. In 1925 the company optioned the property to Casper Ellington, stipulating that a dredge be installed. When the operator failed to bring in a dredge, the company sold out to Richard Bauer in 1929. Bauer worked for the next seven years with a crew of four to five men. He built a 2.5-mile ditch along the eastern side of the valley to produce 165 feet of pressure. The crew operated three giants to seep gravel into sluice boxes. Water shortages often forced shutdowns.

Bauer's operation was the largest in the district but he sold out in 1936 after production declined. Work continued by the new owners until the war. Yukon Placers bought the claims after the war, built a road from the Yukon, and installed new hydraulic equipment. Work started up again in 1948. Production in 1949 was 1,372 ounces of gold. Work continued until 1951. A bulldozer operation started in 1949, producing $50,000 before closing in 1951.

Charley River

The Charley River courses northward 107 miles from its origin to join the Yukon at river mile 1,179. Despite tributary names suggestive of mineral wealth, including Bonanza and Copper, no minerals have been mined along its reaches. About 60 prospectors tried their luck along the Charley in 1898-99. They founded the camp of Independence on the Yukon River at the mouth of the Charley and built eight or 10 cabins, but it quickly faded when no gold was found.

Coal and Woodchopper Creeks

Prospectors located claims on both of these streams in 1898, but their potential created little excitement. A handful of miners worked placers sporadically in the early years of the century along 5-mile stretches upstream. Some mining was also done on Boulder and Rose creeks, tributaries of Woodchopper and Mineral creeks (a tributary of Woodchopper), respectively. Production statistics for the region do not usually detail particular creek yields, but Mineral Creek's output was $18,000 in 1906 when 18 men labored for the season. Activity had begun to pick up on the several creeks in 1905, but the gain was small. Only $15,000 was taken that year from Woodchopper, Coal, Washington, and Fourth of July creeks.

Life was not easy for Abe Fisher, Frank Slaven, and the few other miners who independently worked the creeks. A man suffering accident or illness had few options. Abe Fisher of Woodchopper wrote to the mission hospital at Fort Yukon in distress over his health. Dr. Grafton Burke was solicitous but cautious: "By this mail we are sending your medicine with full instructions for your ailment, as we best understand it from the rather uncertain account given. You must remember, however, that a catarrhal affliction is surprisingly rebellious to all treatment and more often responds in many types to a change of atmosphere." The doctor was not, however, hinting that Fisher leave the country and extended an invitation: "This hospital of the Episcopal Church is for the purpose of serving humanity whether or not they can meet their business obligations. If, therefore, you are in need of medical or surgical care, you may be admitted for the same, regardless of cost." [4]

Fisher lived at the Woodchopper roadhouse. Other roadhouses were spaced along the Yukon to serve travelers. Some achieved local fame because of the peculiarities of their operators, as with the Washington Creek roadhouse. A determined woman ran this two-room hotel until declining winter Yukon trail traffic closed it sometime after 1910. The Rev. Hudson Stuck reported that the roadhouse's proprietor, eager to stay in business, used to grab her rifle and fire warning shots at travelers who by-passed her place. [5]

Judge James Wickersham, who traveled often between his base at Eagle to Circle and Rampart for court sessions, had plenty to say about roadhouses in his memoir, Old Yukon. Webber's Roadhouse, located about 15 miles northwest of the Coal Creek mouth, was not one of his favorite stops because old Webber was cantankerous and a slovenly housekeeper. Wickersham's description of the roadhouse is detailed and probably fit a number of the hostelries available to miners and others:

The one-room log-tavern stood at the edge of a dense forest of tall straight evergreens that covered an island on the left limit of the river. The side walls of the cabin, built of small round logs, were head high, and the central roof-log was just above the outstretched finger tips. The roof was constructed of small round poles laid from the ridge pole to the top logs on the side walls, then covered a foot deep with moss and weighted down with sod and gravel. The tavern was about ten by sixteen feet square inside. It was finished with one clapboard door hung on wooden pins, and one window sash. The dining table consisted of rough boards nailed to poles, about three feet long, driven into auger-holes about four feet apart just below the window. Two pole bunks of similar design adorned the back wall. The dirt floor was spattered with grease from the stove. There was one chair of riven slab set on three pole legs. The two other chairs were boxes, one marked in large letters 'Hunter's Old Rye,' and the other, 'Eagle Brand Milk.' A dog stable, much smaller than the tavern stood alongside. [6]

Frank Slaven was a Coal Creek miner who hung on in the area for many years. Like Alfred McMichael and others, he had been drawn to the region in 1898. For several years he made a living working several claims with pick and shovel and living off the land. Finally, in 1905, his efforts were rewarded with a promising strike on Coal Creek. This discovery was enough to keep him from wandering away in the manner of most miners. His placer yield, however, was not rich enough to make him independent of other work. He trapped, cut wood for steamboats, and ran a roadhouse which he built where Coal Creek entered the Yukon. Slaven consolidated a number of claims and sold them to A.D. McRae and Ernest Patty in 1934.

Frank Slaven on Coal Creek, Abe Fisher on Woodchopper, and other men dwelling elsewhere along the Yukon and its tributaries were part of a special society. Many of the men were bachelors or, like George Pilcher of Marshall, once married men who, for varying reasons, could neither return outside nor induce their wives to join them.

Their lives were neither very adventurous nor particularly romantic. They were small-scale miners who worked hard just to keep going. Whether their lot, viewed objectively, was superior to that of most workers Outside at the time or not is questionable. But those who lingered in the North certainly believed that their independent, self-reliant existence was a better course—and that kept them going.

After 1906 most mining was carried on by a few pick-and-shovel men. USGS geologist L.M. Prindle and J.B. Mertie, Jr., investigated gold placers between Woodchopper and Fourth of July creeks in 1911 and reported what they found. The region was known to contain auriferous gravel and had relatively easy access from the Yukon River. The nearest settlements were Eagle and Circle "and a few buildings" at Nation and at the mouth of Woodchopper Creek. Virtually all developments in the district had occurred since 1905. Despite the flurry of activity over the previous few years, however, Prindle estimated that "the total gold production of the region to date is less than $150,000, the greater part of which has come from Mineral Gulch, a tributary of Woodchopper, and from Fourth of July Creek." [7]

The most promising discoveries made on Coal Creek by the time of Prindle's visit were 15 miles from the mouth. In 1910, miners reached bedrock at 7 feet and found some nuggets valued up to $14. Miners were also working on Woodchopper Creek, a small stream only 12 miles long in a floodplain half a mile wide, and at Mineral Creek, a promising tributary of the Woodchopper. At some places the overburden was very deep, up to 30 feet.

Ten mines employing 25 men operated in the summer of 1914, and several of them on Coal Creek worked over the winter. Work began that season on a hydraulic plant to carry water from Iron Creek to the mouth of Mineral Creek for an operation on Woodchopper Creek.

Post Offices and Census

Nation had a post office from 1908 to 1924. Roadhouse owner William E. Noyes was postmaster from 1908-1919, succeeded by Frank Young. Woodchopper's post office operated from 1919 to 1936 when the Coal Creek office opened to replace it. The Coal Creek post office closed in 1961. The post office at Circle opened in 1896 and that at Eagle in 1898.

Census figures for the Circle district, which included the town of Circle as well as residents of areas now a part of the Yukon-Charley preserve, show the paucity of the population:


The 1960, 1970, and 1980 census gave populations for the town of Circle but not for the district.

Production Totals

Statistics of gold and silver production in the Circle district from 1894-1918 show a remarkable constancy over the period. Of course, only a small part of the yield can be attributed to Coal, Woodchopper, Fourth of July, or other creeks within Yukon-Charley. See the following page for a breakdown of gold and silver production in the Circle District from 1894 to 1918.

Circle District Gold and Silver Production 1894-1918 [8]

(fine ounces)
(fine ounces)
1894483.75$ 10,000123$ 77


Note: From 1918 to 1988 further production has been documented by state geologist Tom Bundtzen. His figures show a total gold production from discovery of 917,455 ounces and 145,774 ounces of silver.

Conditions changed in the 1930s when a dredge was brought to Coal Creek. This dredge operation distinguishes the mining history of Yukon-Charley from that in other park regions. Dredging became commonplace from early in the twentieth century in the interior, on the Seward Peninsula, and elsewhere, but employment of the great mechanical diggers was not deemed feasible on any sections now within Alaska park boundaries save for Coal and Woodchopper creeks. Dredging, introduced by Gold Placer, Inc. and a sister company, Alluvial Golds, Inc., was directed by Ernest Patty, a mining engineer who later became president of the University of Alaska.

In the years before dredging, the country serviced by the towns of Eagle and Circle was mostly uninhabited. Eagle, well situated on a terrace above the high-water level, had long been recognized as "the best town site of the upper Yukon," because it could not be flooded yet was located alongside a deep channel of the river, which helped steamboat landings. [9] Despite these advantages, the mining economy supported a permanent white population of only 40 people in the summer of 1930, a population that increased a little in the winter when miners moved in from their claims.

Circle was closer to most of the mining areas of Yukon-Charley and was also the supply point for the Birch Creek mining district. Even so, its summer population was only 20 with a few additions in the winter.

Nation and Woodchopper continued to lose population, and by 1930 Nation had only two residents. Eight to 10 miners lived near the Fourth of July Creek diggings. Woodchopper was livelier with 15 to 20 men. The white population between Eagle and Circle, including trappers, was estimated by the USGS in 1930 as "probably less than 100." [10]

The Yukon River was still the major highway of the region in the 1930s. There were a few short wagon roads from Circle to the Birch Creek district and from Eagle to American Creek. In 1925 a short road was built from Nation up Fourth of July Creek. Most freight in the region was moved during the winter by horse and dogsleds.

Even after completion of the Alaska Railroad, freight rates from Outside remained high. The railroad did not offer any connecting freight service to the upper Yukon. The Canadian route remained the important one. Freight was carried by rail from Skagway to Whitehorse, thence by steamboat down the Yukon. In the late 1920s a summer road was built from Fairbanks to Chatanika and Circle, which was some help to district mines, but freight continued to come in over the Canadian route.

Patty's Dredge

Ernest Patty recommended Coal Creek to his Canadian employer, A.D. McRae, putting his faith in mechanical mining. McRae optioned several miles of ground from claim owners, who had been trying to make a living on pick-and-shovel mining. Patty put down churn drill holes every 100 feet across the Coal Creek Valley and also sank prospect shafts. The test results were favorable, but even before the testing was completed the miners were cheered by news that gold prices had risen from $20.67 to $35 an ounce. Thus encouraged, McRae put Patty in charge of the operation and gave him an interest in the mine.

In 1935 Patty built an 8-mile road from the Yukon, portable camp buildings that could be moved at need, and a 2-mile ditch along the hillside to bring gravity water above the mining area for stripping and thawing. Water was essential in preparing the ground for a dredging operation. At Coal Creek the frozen overburden, or "muck," varied in depth from 6 to 26 feet. Removing this was the first task before the frozen, gold-bearing gravel could be thawed and dug by the dredge. To remove the muck, Patty's crew spaced hydraulic nozzles or giants around the area. Water piped from the hills provided pressure heavy enough to sweep the muck away in stages as it thawed at the rate of about 4 inches a day.

After a few weeks of work, the miners reached bedrock. No dredge could dig into this frozen ground, so miners had to drive points—10-foot lengths of extra-heavy steel pipe, seven-eighths of an inch in diameter, topped with a chisel bit. Water was carried through a network of connecting pipes under pressure to spurt out from the chisel bit. Eventually the water worked downward to thaw the gravel. It required lots of water and several weeks before the ground was ready for the dredge.

Charles Janin, the leading dredge designer of the time, had been commissioned by McRae to design the Coal Creek dredge. Janin, assisted by engineer Ira Joraleman, designed a 4-cubic-foot bucket system with an iron pontoon hull that was constructed by the Walter W. Johnson Co. of Oakland, California. Once built, the dredge was taken apart and shipped by sea, the White Pass and Yukon Railroad, and barge to Coal Creek. The parts weighed 400 tons, and their removal from a barge at the camp with no loading equipment was a monumental task.

It was a big day for Patty when the dredge was bolted together and moved from its recently flooded construction pit:

Its two diesel engines began coughing; the winchman moved the dredge out of the construction pit and the bucket line started to revolve and bit into the gravel. It was a great moment to hear the thump of the first gravel falling into the hopper. As it cascaded from the hopper into a big revolving screen, I could see the finer gravel, which would be sand and gold, dropping through slots in the screen and onto gold-saving sluices. To catch the fine gold that might be swept over the riffles, we added mercury each day to the sluices. Mercury unites with gold to form a silvery amalgam. [11]

The dredge worked around the clock, gouging out its own pond as it advanced, sealing it at its lower end with discarded sand and gravel. Heavier gravel that would not pass through the screen was carried by a conveyor belt or stacker to form piles behind the dredges. Such mounds of tailings remain conspicuous sights wherever dredge mining has been practiced.

After two weeks, Patty shut the dredge down for the first cleanup. This was an anxious time. His reputation and the continued employment of the workforce hung in the balance:

The crew started pulling the gold-saving riffles from the sluices. Nobody said a word. We were all too keyed up . . . When water was turned into the sluices, men with wooden paddles began separating the fine gravel and sand from the amalgam. Little by little, a mound of amalgam built up at the head of the sluice. [12]

Patty thought the amalgam looked good but could not know its value until the mass was taken to the gold room, cleaned, cooked, to distill the mercury, then cooled. A large sponge of gold was the happy result. After melting in a furnace and slagging off impurities the gold was poured into steel molds to be cast into bars. The yield totaled $27,000—an excellent start to the season. McRae was persuaded to follow Patty's suggestion that claims on Woodchopper Creek, just across the mountain ridge, also be purchased.

Services to the area were improved as Coal Creek was developed. The Woodchopper post office was closed in 1936 and moved to the mouth of Coal Creek. An automobile road was built in 1936 from the mouth of Coal Creek upstream 6-miles to the mines. From the camp the road continued westward across the ridge into the valley of Woodchopper Creek.

When geologist J.B. Mertie, Jr. visited the operations in 1936 he described the dredge:

The dredge on Coal Creek is of the pontoon type, with a covered-belt stacker and a hull consisting of 15 sections. It is operated from one spud, two bow lines, and two stern lines. A seven-drum winch is used. The digging ladder consists of 62 buckets of 4 cubic feet capacity, but it is handling about 3,000 cubic yards to the 24-hour day. With this ladder the dredge can dig 14 feet below the surface of the water, and hence for handling some of the deeper ground on Coal Creek an extension to the present ladder may be needed. The trommel screen is 20 feet long and 5 feet wide, with holes grading from half an inch to 1-1/2 inches, and the gravel is washed by water from two nozzles at the head of the screen and five nozzles at the lower end of the screen. A grizzly is also used, with two small tables below it, dumping into the well. Under the trommel is a Holmes distributor, feeding into six tables and two flumes on the port side. The power plant consists of two Atlas Imperial four-cylinder Diesel engines, of 135 and 90 horsepower, and fuel consumption ranges from 100 to 130 gallons a day, depending upon the speed at which the engines are operated. The larger engine is used to supply power for the main belt drive, which operates the digging ladder and the trommel screen. The smaller engine drives the belt stacker and two water pumps, which are operated by a chain drive. One of the pumps provides water at high pressure for the seven nozzles, and the other provides sluice water. A small auxiliary gasoline engine is used to operate a small centrifugal pump, which is used in the process of cleaning up. A 5-kilowatt direct-current generator, which is used for lighting the dredge, is ordinarily run off the main belt drive, but during the clean-ups it is run by the auxiliary gasoline engine. A 40-horsepower boiler is used in the fall, for thawing the pond. [13]

Patty bought Frank Bennett's claims on Woodchopper after sinking a number of test shafts. Bennett, a veteran miner since 1890, had mined in the Fortymile country for years. The ground was good enough to support a second dredge for more than 25 years.

Ernest Patty's memoirs are of interest historically because he had much to say about his development of Coal Creek. Since his family customarily joined him at the camp for the season, he was perhaps stimulated to create a more pleasant environment than that in most mining camps.

We wanted our mining camp to look as though someone loved it. The frame buildings that lined our airstrip—mess hall, recreation room, watchman's log cabin, office and radio room, machine shop, repair shop, and warehouse—were all painted yellow trimmed with white. The mess hall sported window boxes full of flowers. [14]

The four-man bunkhouses stood separate from these buildings so that night-shift workers could have quiet when they slept.

When the operation closed in October the men dispersed. The Indians of Eagle would return to there, and most miners wintered Outside or in Fairbanks. Phil Berail, the hydraulic foreman, always left with his dog team for the headwaters of the Charley River, where he prospected and trapped until spring. Patty had a home in Fairbanks and close connections with the University of Alaska. Many of the Coal Creek jobs were filled by students, and all of the company's engineers were college men Patty had trained.

As elsewhere, the dredge operations on Coal and Woodchopper creeks were closed during World War II. After the war, Patty tried to carry on despite rising costs of operations. He stopped using hydraulics for stripping off the overburden of muck and relied on ground sluicing using the creek water to erode the muck. By exposing the gravel a year or two before dredging the summer heat thawed it and saved the expense of point driving. This economy saved about 10 cents a cubic yard, a considerable amount since the yield was only 60 cents in gold per cubic yard (about a ton-and-a-half of earth). It took a lot of dirt handling to produce enough gold to justify the operation. Most days the men mined 3,000 yards.

Mertie and the USGS

In 1937 the U.S. Geological Survey published Bulletin 872, The Yukon-Tanana Region Alaska, a compendium of the government geologists' investigations over many years. Its principal author, J.B. Mertie, considered it his opus as it encompassed his field work in 1911, 1921, 1922, 1925, 1928, 1929, 1931, and 1936 and summarized work done by others: "The present report may be said to terminate the era of reconnaissance surveys begun by Brooks and Prindle in 1903." At least 25 geologists had worked in the huge region bound by the Yukon and Tanana rivers but it was Mertie's task to summarize the effort. Production figures compiled by the USGS are the best index to the ups and downs of the region's mining activity. Speculators and miners studied each year's statistics and sometimes shaped their plans by what the numbers revealed. Mertie acknowledged the other USGS men and Alaskans who contributed: "The writer has never experienced any treatment other than hospitality among the prospectors, miners, and traders in this country." [15]

Understanding the importance of work done by USGS includes appreciation of the personal endeavors of individuals compiling research under trying conditions. Bulletin #872, Mertie's personal reminiscences, provides a sense of change and the passage of time on the mining frontier. Mertie and Louis Prindle started their 1911 field season at Woodchopper. He was familiar with the twin nemeses of field workers: "moskitoes were thick and the swampy ground made transport of the men and pack-horses difficult." He learned some coping tricks, like cutting slits in the sides of his boots to let the water out as fast as it seeped in. His unforgettable experiences included a unique view from atop a mountain: "The ridges were covered with caribou in every direction as far as the eye could see. There must have been 100,000." [16]

Near the end of the season, Mertie got lost near Nation and Fourth-of-July creeks. Fortunately, he stumbled onto a cabin, a winter roadhouse, where he met the first Alaskans he had seen since leaving Eagle early in the summer. From there he finished his field work at a Seventymile River mining camp. "I had never seen a placer mine but being a geologist I was supposed to be an expert, so I bluffed my way pretending a knowledge I didn't possess." [17] From this uncertain start in the Yukon-Charley country, Mertie became a familiar summer Alaskan, one of the corps of specialists who studied the northern environment.

District Production

Overall gold production of Coal and Woodchopper creeks has been considerable, with most mined during the early dredging years. [18] Precise figures for Coal Creek from 1936-57 were 92,385 ounces of gold and 9,514 ounces of silver. The Circle district, which included Coal and Woodchopper creeks and Deadwood and Mammoth creeks (outside park boundaries), represented a gold-mining boom in the late 1930s. Thanks to the new dredges operated by Patty, USGS reported that "of all the districts in the Yukon region, the Circle district showed the greatest percentage of increase in placer-gold output in 1936 over that of 1935." The 1935 yield was $346,000; in 1936 it was $124,000. This gain moved the Circle district to third place among the Yukon districts, which were always led by Fairbanks and Iditarod. Other districts included Innoko, Ruby, Tolovana, Hot Springs, Tanana, Fortymile, Koyukuk and Chandalar, Marshall, Kantishna, Bonnifield, Rampart, Eagle, and Chisana. [19]

The 1937 USGS reported figures similar with a production of $937,000, which moved the Circle district to second place among Yukon districts just below Fairbanks and ahead of Iditarod. [20]

In 1938 the Circle district gained again, showing a 50 percent increase some $540,000 more than in the previous year. Half of the total production came from the four dredges on Coal, Woodchopper, Deadwood, and Mammoth creeks, while the balance came from Mastolon, Eagle, Independence, and other creeks. [21]

USGS reported the same trend in 1941 and 1942, although the reduction compared to the 1938 total in 1939 and only a small increase over the 1938 peak in 1940. Philip Smith of the USGS, noting the decline, then the rebound, was mildly optimistic: "This gain, while extremely gratifying as indicating the excellent condition of the placer industry, can hardly be considered to mark a definite trend, but seems rather to represent a fluctuation such as naturally may be expected from season to season." [22]

The war disrupted everything. Recordkeeping became sporadic. USGS specialists received too few reports from operators to make any estimate of the gravel handled by dredges in 1941 and 1942. Operations continued until 1942 when wartime restrictions on mining went into effect. Some work continued even during the war as the War Production Board permitted the Woodchopper dredge to continue during the 1943 season and approved operation of the Coal Creek dredge in summer 1945. In 1946 both dredges resumed their normal pre-war schedule. By 1949 gold volume declined, and the company began working the two creeks on alternate years.

Suspension of steamboat service on the Yukon River by the White Pass and Yukon Railway in 1954 was a severe blow to the dredging company. The consequent rise in freight rates discouraged operations, as profits had been falling steadily for several years. After the 1957 season the company shut down the Coal Creek dredge. Subsequent operators tried dredging for brief intervals, but high costs could not be overcome.

Coal Creek: Recent Mining

Ted C. Matthews leased the Coal Creek dredge and mining properties in 1961 and operated from 1962-1964. He took 6,350 ounces of gold and 570 ounces of silver but could not make a profit because of high costs.

There was no mining from 1965-1972. In 1972, following the de-regulation of gold prices, Ernest Wolff, D. Cobin, and W. Sothen bought the Coal Creek claims. Initially, they worked with bulldozers and sluice boxes, but in 1973 they ran the dredge. They did not operate the dredge in 1974-1975 and in 1976 used it for only a short time.

In 1977 Lomerson, Ltd. (AU Placer, Inc.) purchased the property for open-cut mining with two bulldozers feeding elevated sluices. Stack tailings were removed with a front-end loader. Twenty-five employees worked the first season.

In July 1985 a joint venture, the Coal Creek Mining Properties, acquired the properties. A crew of 12 to 25 stripped gravels and fed the recovery sluices. In October 1986 the company quit and donated the land to the National Park Service.

Woodchopper Creek: Recent Mining

Alluvial Gold, Inc., the McRae-Patty Company established on Woodchopper Creek, operated for 16 seasons, recovering 83,841 ounces of gold and 6,080 ounces of silver. The company shut down after the 1960 season and leased the claims and dredge to Ted Matthews. Matthews worked the dredge in 1962, recovering 3,375 ounces of gold and 308 ounces of silver, mining downstream from the end of the airstrip for a quarter of a mile.

In 1971 Joe Vogler purchased the claims and added others he staked in 1973 and 1976. Most of Vogler's mining has been on Mineral Creek, a tributary of the Woodchopper.

Other Creeks

Miners worked Washington Creek from 1898-1906 but gained only a few thousand dollars. Sandy Johnson was an earlier prospector on Sam and Ben creeks. Johnson did hydraulic mining in the 1920s. Arthur Reynolds worked a ground sluicing operation on Ben Creek from 1927. He built a ditch and dam for ground sluicing and mined until the war years. Johnson sold his claims to Barney Hansen in 1944. Hansen used a Cat for a couple of years and built an airstrip 3,200 feet long on the ridge between Coal and Ben creeks. Hansen sold to J.R. Layman in 1961. Layman worked summers until the mid-1960s. [23]


The Circle district, including the area drained by the Charley, Birch Creek above Circle, and most of Preacher Creek, is an upland area containing many ridges and isolated domes. Prospectors did not neglect exploration for gold, copper, and lead lodes, but no discoveries of lode metals have been made.

Notes: Chapter 15

1. Juliette C. Reinicker, Klondike Letters, (Anchorage: Alaska Northwest Publ. Co., 1984), 47.

2. Ibid.

3. July Creek Placer Co. Corporation file 842-F. RG8, ASA.

4. Burke to Fisher, December 1, 1921, ASA, Eagle Collection, File 21.

5. Hudson Stuck, Voyages on the Yukon (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1917), 82.

6. James Wickersham, Old Yukon (Washington: Washington Law Book Co., 1938), 140.

7. Brooks, Mineral Resources of Alaska, 1911, USGS Bulletin No. 520, (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1912), 12.

8. Alfred H. Brooks, Mineral Resources of Alaska, 1918, USGS Bulletin No. 712, (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1920), 45.

9. J.B. Mertie, Jr. Geology of the Eagle-Circle District, Alaska, Bulletin No. 816, (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1930), 9.

10. Ibid.

11. Ernest N. Patty, North Country Challenge (New York: David McKay & Co., 1969), 99.

12. Ibid.

13. J.B. Mertie, Jr., Mineral Resources of Alaska, 1936, Bulletin No. 897-C, (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1938), 253-54.

14. Ibid., 102.

15. J.B. Mertie, Jr., Yukon-Tanana, USGS Bulletin No. 872, (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1937), 9, 12.

16. Evelyn Mertie, Thirty Summers and a Winter, (Fairbanks: MIRL, University of Alaska, 1982), 6.

17. Ibid., 7.

18. James Ducker, "Navigability Study for the Upper Yukon Region, Alaska," (Anchorage: Bureau of Land Management, 1983) Vol. 1, 128.

19. P.S. Smith, Mineral Resources of Alaska, 1936, USGS Bulletin No. 897, (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1938), 49.

20. P.S. Smith, Mineral Resources of Alaska, 1937, USGS Bulletin No. 910, (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1939), 49.

21. P.S. Smith, Mineral Resources of Alaska, 1938, USGS Bulletin No. 917, (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1940), 47.

22. P.S. Smith, Mineral Resources of Alaska, USGS Bulletin No. 23. (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1942), 40.

23. Ibid., 125-26.

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Last Updated: 01-Oct-2008